on The Iliac Crest, a novel by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker (Feminist Press)

The ilium is one of the most prominent structural parts of the human body. Its crest forms the broad upper edge of the pelvis. Every med school rookie knows its name and function. Strangely, the unnamed narrator of The Iliac Crest, an experienced physician at the Serenity Shores Sanatorium, is unable to recall the name of this most obvious bone. When an unknown young woman with a feline face appears at the door of his seaside house, he notices the bone protruding “below the unfinished hem of her T-shirt.” Out of boredom, he simply allows her to enter. “I am Amparo Dávila**,” she says. Soon after, a second woman called The Betrayed arrives, a jilted ex-lover of the doctor. He lets her in, too. “My relationship with women has always been problematic,” he says.

GarzaCover.jpgThe doctor’s narrative is told from a weakened state which has resulted from the very experiences he now recounts, events that have utterly disoriented him yet which he recalls with an accentless clarity. He has been shaken. The unrecallable bone is only the initial protrusion (intrusion) of an entire world that has been entirely neglected – another and perhaps an original way of being that has been overtaken. Speaking from an in-between state, the doctor is situated neither within his benighted life as a physician to the discarded dying souls of the sanatorium (he routinely prescribes morphine) nor within the hidden life that seems to be emerging around him and within his consciousness. He is both lucid and mad.

He is challenged by women on all fronts – not only by his importunate house invaders, who quickly become intimate friends and speak their own unrecognizable language, but also by administrators and nurses at the hospital, and soon by an older woman who also claims to be Amparo Dávila. About the two women in his house, he says, “I assumed that they knew each other from before and that, allied against me, they did nothing but plan some kind of feminine revenge.” Although his dread grows over this looming emergency, he cannot quite explain its nature. What he does seem to comprehend, however, is that he is turning back toward some preexisting state, and turning away from conventional categories – of genders and identities, borders, space and time. At mid-book comes this one-paragraph chapter:

Something happens in the world when you turn back. That slow trance – through which the subject is distanced from the object and approaches, backward, an unseen place – always has consequences. It has nothing to do, as I believed for so many years, with erasing the world or stepping away from it. It has to do, I was just coming to understand, with a leap or, better, with how in the blink of an eye a fascination with the visible and visual gives way to a fascination with the invisible visual. I suppose there is no need to explain any of this to the men and women who have done it. I suppose all of you remember, just as you moved backward, as you crossed the borders of the real without realizing it, that it was impossible to close your eyes. For all the terror, for all the commotion, for all the unease you feel, you cannot close your eyes. You see. You see voraciously. You cannot stop seeing.

This is not the language of someone in denial. In fact, he is clearly making an effort to articulate something momentous if not yet completely realized. This statement could also stand for Garza’s ars poetica -- the subject (the text) is distanced from the object (the reader) through the disruption of our reliance on fixed character identity and action within a defined field of time and space, yet we are compelled to keep looking.

GarzaColor.jpgThe doctor is drawn into an intrigue: young Amparo Dávila claims to be a censored writer whose works have been taken from her. “A conspiracy disappeared me,” she says. Furthermore, she also claims to know his “secret” – that he is, in fact, a woman, and that in a prior life he was a tree. Apparently, there are a number of “Emissaries” who call themselves Amparo, and each one hopes to recover the words of the true Amparo. The older Amparo whom the doctor meets in South City tells him, “We need certain words to fathom what we are. If those words are taken from us, as they have been, we’d only spit out lies.” As for South City itself, it is a Kafkaesque location, twinned with North City, in a country ruled by martial law.

Garza’s innovative achievement in The Iliac Crest reminds me of Jacques Rancière’s “three processes of critical art” in Dissensus (2010) – “First, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness; and third, a mobilization of individuals as a result of that awareness.” Critical art is made to generate a new perception of the world and is therefore committed to our transformation.

If, as readers, what we desire in fiction and poetry is a vision of a complete world, then Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel offers a disturbing fulfillment. For writers wishing to take up issues of gender and identity, the novel is essential reading – because it teaches how to integrate ideas within the artful wholeness of an imaginative vision. Here, self-integrity doesn’t issue merely from the rightness of one’s values. We have just begun to fathom what we are, the words are only now arriving haltingly from “beyond memory.” Here, equality among beings is a starting point, not a destination, and everyone is struggling against the life-diminishing aspects of culture. “Women, I assume, understand,” says the doctor about his “new condition.” “To the men, it is enough to know that this happens more often than we think.”

Garza’s language, in Sarah Booker’s attuned translation, not only lets us hear the sound of an awakening but actually draws us into the disorienting process of seeing ourselves anew. The Iliac Crest is simply astonishing.

[Published September 12, 2017. 144 pages, $16.95 paperback]

** Amparo Dávila is a Mexican writer who published her first collection of stories in 1959. Matthew Gleeson, writing in The Paris Review, noted that her female characters “are menaced by phantoms or assailants, are trapped in enclosed spaces or enclosed lives. The “real causes” may be ambiguous, but the mental states manifested — fear, desperation, and nervous obsession — are familiar, only heightened to an excruciating intensity.”